A meal made from homegrown veg is always satisfying. Eating ingredients that have been nurtured from plot to plate taste a little better and seem a touch healthier than those gathered from the shops. But what do you use when you want to introduce some spice to your meal? The chances are you’ll reach for a jar or fresh item that has been shipped halfway around the world to a supermarket. Just imagine the extra satisfaction that could be gained if you were able to grow these spices yourself.
For some ingredients, you can. There are two obvious spices that many of us grow already: chillies and bay (if you’ve not used bay leaves for anything other than a stew then you’re missing out – to see just how spicy it can taste, simmer three or four leaves in a mug’s worth of boiling water for five minutes and drink as you would tea, with or without milk, and behold its chai-like spiciness).
But there are a few more exotic ingredients that can also be grown at home with a little extra care. Here are three to try…
This stalky ingredient, that adds a unique lemony flavour to Thai dishes, is much easier to grow at home than you might imagine, the only real challenge is keeping it warm over winter and mastering its watering routine. For the former, a greenhouse, conservatory or sunny windowsill will suffice; for the watering part, it’s a case of getting a balance between preventing it from drying out for long periods over summer while avoiding it getting waterlogged (which is easy to do as it slows down for winter).
In order to move it in and out of the garden, you’ll need to home it in a pot, and as it can grow into a big bushy clump of grass, you’ll have to be prepared to upscale it to a large pot at some stage, or split into smaller pots.
To start your lemongrass adventure you can buy young potted plants from some nurseries, garden centres or online. Or you could start one off with a piece of shop-bought lemongrass. Buy sticks that have a bit of base below the more bulbous bottom and are as fresh-looking as possible, peeling off any dry or loose outer layers. Drop your sticks into a jar of water, which should be refreshed every couple of days, and soon roots will begin to appear and the grass will begin to open up at the top. When you have a small clump of straggly roots you can pot them up. Keep them warm, maintain a good watering routine, and your own clump of lemongrass will start to develop.
The roots of this lively spice are so readily available that there doesn’t seem a whole lot of point to growing them yourself, especially as you won’t get instantly massive yields. But if you fancy an unusual house plant for company, and want to enjoy the mellower warmth of fresh stem ginger (rather than the drier roots we’re used to), then read on.
As with lemongrass, the best way to start growing ginger is with a shop-bought root (we call it a root, but it’s actually a rhizome). Look for the freshest piece you can find and ideally one that has a small bud forming on one of its nobbly bits (you might be put off by these mystery swellings if buying to eat, but for growing purposes, it means the first part of the job has already been done).
Chop off a small piece of root that contains the bud – some of them can easily be knocked off, so be careful – and plant it in house plant compost with the tip of the bud just peeking above the surface. Give it a drink of water and then treat it like you would a soft cutting by covering with a clear plastic bag and placing it somewhere warm and light. After a few weeks, you should start to notice if it has taken, as a few green shoots will emerge. Release it from its plastic casing and allow it to steadily grow indoors.
It will take most of the year to reach a decent size and can be harvested when the swelling at the base has reached the size of a golf ball. Pick this while the ginger is still green and leafy and it’s known as ‘stem ginger’, or wait until the foliage has died down then dig the rhizome and dry to produce your own root ginger, being sure to keep some aside for continued growth.
If you want to ratchet the heat up then you could consider growing some wasabi. This is another plant that grows from rhizomes and, with a bit of searching, you should be able to find some young plants to grow yourself. Be warned – it is a bit of a challenge and has even been called ‘the hardest plant to grow’ by gardeners the world over. But for some people, that challenge is part of the fun.
Wasabi grows best in cool, shady conditions that receive a good supply of water and have a fairly consistent temperature – this can be tricky to achieve in the UK but a well-aired greenhouse or an area of the garden that you can protect over winter might just do the trick.
When we tried growing wasabi we discovered that our cool, shady spot was too easily waterlogged and the plant only survived for one year. It grows best by rocky rivers in Japan – so it has a regular supply of natural water that easily drains away, something that our Somerset clay can’t offer. Apparently, a successfully grown wasabi plant can reach a height of 60cm and a width of one metre, displaying big heart-shaped leaves and clusters of dainty white flowers which are also edible.
If we’ve whetted the appetite for a fiery hot root, but wasabi growing sounds like too much trouble, then follow our lead and grow the rampant horseradish instead.
What other spices have you grown at home? Share your successes in the comments!